I’m kneeling on the ground doing dumbbell rows, but I can’t stop staring at my trainer Gregg’s arms. He's facing me, and his arms remind me of two thick, slightly misshapen baguettes: long, glowing, and incredibly enticing. Gregg is much better at this whole rowing thing than I am, but he’s encouraging and explains technique in a way that’s not condescending. I make a few of the modifications he suggests, and soon I’m crushing the workout — and crushing on Gregg.
No, I’m not at my local gym. I haven’t darkened its doorway for 11 months, and I don’t plan on returning until the vaccine has been widely distributed. Instead, I’m trying Apple Fitness+, the tech titan’s latest venture, which is on sale today, 14th December.
Apple Fitness+ requires you to have an Apple Watch (series three or newer) and an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV (where it's part of the Fitness app). You sync your watch, then scroll through the carousels of workouts, which include HIIT, yoga, dance, strength, treadmill, cycling, and even rowing. Some workouts can be done with nothing but a yoga mat, others — like rowing or running — require big-ticket machines. You can filter by trainer, workout length (there are 10- to 45-minute sessions, and shorter cool-downs), and music type. You can opt for throwbacks like “Whip it” by Devo or more modern jams like “Physical” by Dua Lipa, and you can download the playlists you like via Apple Music post-workout.
You can also search by ability level. Apple Fitness+ has a whole section of beginner workouts, in which trainers offer more modifications and guidance. For example, in a core workout with trainer Sam Sanchez, she walks you through exactly how to plank and suggests three versions: one with both knees and elbows on the mat, one with just knees down, and one standard plank.
There are more advanced workouts too. After a HIIT workout with trainer Kim Ngo, I’m more sore than I remember being since before the pandemic, courtesy of the jump squats, ski jumps, jumping jacks, and deadlifts. (The trainers have personality too. At one point, Ngo, who hails from East London, pushed me through a 40-second burpee blast by reassuring me that it takes her “longer to make a cup of tea.”)
During the pandemic, I've tried a ton of different workout-from-home platforms, and to me, what set Apple Fitness+ apart was the small stuff. The picture is crystal clear, for one. Thanks to the spotty WiFi in my parents' house, the Zoom workouts I tend to use are always blurry — as though I took out my contacts, then downed three shots of Johnnie Walker. But Apple Fitness+'s workouts are downloadable, and the videos are always crisp.
Another thing that puts the "plus" in Apple Fitness+: After a few sessions, the platform learns what you like and will recommend workouts based on what you’ve done before — and what you might want to consider trying to balance out your routine. If you’re always doing treadmill workouts, for example, they might suggest yoga to help stretch you out.
One big problem with at-home workouts is that it’s generally so easy to just… stop. Why keep doing jumping jacks, when you could easily switch your Apple TV over to Netflix to watch The Queen's Gambit. But the platform combats this urge by sneaking in a ton of thoughtful motivational touches. For example, during workouts, there's a “burn bar” that tells you how hard you're pushing compared with other people who’ve done the same sessions, based on the metrics your Apple Watch picks up. (Hate competition? You can disable the bar.) A countdown clock also tells you your time remaining or time elapsed in a workout, depending on what you prefer, and during some sessions, a separate timer will pop up on the screen and on your watch to count down the seconds remaining in a particular move. The screen also gives you an option to see your current heart rate and calories burned.
Which brings me to one thing I don't love about the platform. It uses your Apple Watch rings, which display a “stand” goal (stand for at least a minute each hour, 12 times a day), an “exercise” goal (30 minutes of exercise a day), and a “move” goal (based on calorie burn). Trainers urge you to “close your rings” and if you do, there’s a firework-like celebration. Some people may love this touch, but I exercise to feel strong and, like Elle Woods, for the endorphins. An emphasis on calorie burn can be harmful, especially for anyone who has a history of disordered eating or exercise habits. Luckily, you take the rings off your screen if they bother you.
All in all, though, I found the platform delightful. The trainers are inspiring and high-energy. Some of the workouts include tough moves such as burpees and pop squats, but are presented in a do-able way — and they don’t make you push so hard you feel like you’re going to faint, a la Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap. If you get to the point of burnout, you can switch to a modification that one of the three trainers on the screen will be illustrating for you, or just take a pause.
The platform costs £9.99 a month, or £79.99 a year. (To compare, Peloton asks for £12.99 a month.) If you already have an Apple Watch, and an iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV, that's not too pricey. As of now, though, it's not available on MacBooks, which is a bummer. And if you don't have all the right tech or are an Android or FitBit user, it's a spendier purchase. Some people may also have to factor in certain equipment, if they hope to do the treadmill or rowing workouts — though once it’s safe to go back to the gym, that should be less of an issue.
The bottom line: Apple Fitness+ is seamless, the trainers are fantastic, and I found it fun. Case in point: One evening, I decided to fire up a 10-minute yoga workout, the only thing I had the wherewithal for, since I'd only gotten a few hours of sleep the night before. But the vibes were so good that, after doing the stretch session, I decided to do another 10-minute core workout with the fabulous trainer Amir Ekbatani. I ended my workout feeling refreshed instead of drained. During these surreal times, that's enough to keep me coming back for more.